New Vision (Kampala)

Uganda: Girl Child Education - an Unresolved Battle

TRAIN a woman, a nation trained," significantly reads an ageing signpost in front of Mary Stuart female students' hall of residence at Makerere University. It loudly tells us why it is important to send girls to school.

Appearing before one of the only three women's hall of residence in a university that has six male students' halls, this signpost also reflects our society's commitment to girl-child education as we celebrate International Womens' Day this Friday.

For many years, girls did not enjoy the privilege of attending university education, let alone stepping in school. Several efforts have since been put in place to change this trend.

Almost 50 years later, there are nearly as many girls as boys; in school. But, this is just half the story. It is now 65 odd years from the time the first woman attended her first classroom lesson in Uganda, but we still mull over the real impact of girl-child education in this country.

Such a Long Way

Girl child education scraped through the 1950s, 60s and the 70s. Even with the opening of girls schools such as Gayaza Junior and Gayaza High School (1905), Mt. St. Mary's college Namagunga (1942), many girls were unable to go to school; largely because of prevailing unfavourable societal cultural attitudes of educating girls.

"This was a time of intractable cultural attitude that girls were supposed to be homemakers; people to be married off and produce children," says Namirembe Bitamazire, former minister of education. Bitamazire was among the lucky girls to go to school in her time. "There were only 12 of us in class in 1949," she recalls.

The first attempts at promoting girl child education in Uganda were made by the 1963 Castle Commission. "The Commission highlighted the need to expand girl's education in the country," notes Doris Kakuru Muwhezi, in her paper on gender sensitive education policy and practice in Uganda.

However, very little progress was made as the Government Education Plan (1971/2- 1975/6) formed to implement the suggestions did not have the manpower and facilities to accomplish the job.

Serious reforms to boost girl-child education resumed with the Government Education Policy Review Committee of 1987 which sought to among other issues address inequalities in our education system.

The subsequent 1991 publication of a Government White Paper on Education set out benchmarks against which important programmes to attain parity in education would be implemented.

"One of the key elements of this White Paper was the need to democratise education; to provide equal opportunities to Ugandan children regardless of age, gender, religion and other identities," says Aggrey David Kibenge, former undersecretary in the Ministry of Education and Sports.

These reforms led to the introduction of Affirmative Action in University admission, ensuring that all female applicants get 1.5 points added onto their university entry marks. In 1997, Universal Primary Education was introduced offering more opportunities for girls to attend school.

Several government interventions such as the National Strategy for Girls education and the Promotion of Girl's Education and several other programmes have been implemented to ensure that more girls access formal education. Through initiatives like the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI), the Girls Education Movement, many girls from poor families have been empowered.

The results have been good. According to the World Bank Gender Gap report 2012, the female-male divide in school enrollment has narrowed significantly and in some cases exceeded expectation.

At primary level for instance the gap is 92:90, indicating that there are more girls attending primary school, while in secondary schools it is 15:17 and 4:5 at tertiary level.

According to the education ministry, the net enrollment for girls at primary level increased from 82.3% in 2000 to 97.2% as today.

While that of boys moved from 88.8% for boys in 2000 to 96.3%. Gender parity has grown from 48:51 in 2000 to 50:51 today.

Policy Weaknesses

Despite all this, girl child education has not been without challenges. With about 20% of all girls that enrol in primary school unable to complete their education, there is concern over the significantly high drop-out rates of girls at this level and beyond.

According to a 2010 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's Global monitoring report on marginalisation only 31% of all girls that enrolled for secondary education were able to complete O' level education compared to 39% for boys. 31.1% of the girls were able to join A level compared to 41.3%.

Early pregnancies, poor sanitation facilities in schools and absence of support mechanisms especially for girls have contributed a lot to girls dropping out of school. The situation is often worse in rural areas.

A 2011 New Vision field visit to Kasese district discovered that on average young girls drop out of school between

ages of 12 and 15; to find boyfriends and husbands.

Masika Kulthum Moshi, the district inspector of schools and focal officer for girl-child education in the district at the time, blamed this trend on poverty.

A number of gender parity programmes initiated to support the girls were either poorly attended or no longer functional. Some district education officials blamed this poor support from the district on lack of sufficient facilities.

"These are serious hindrances to girls education for which we are to yet find solutions," says Tonny Mukasa Lusambu, the assistant Commissioner primary education.

Challenges Abound

Several unresolved issues also remain, in regard to policies meant to promote girl-child education. For instance, the policy on affirmative action does not favour the unique circumstances of young women in rural, marginalised areas who are unable to access higher education because of their difficult circumstances," says Solome Nakawesi Kimbugwe, an independent international consultant on gender and human rights. The policy, she says, needs to be more responsive to the needs of such girls.

"It is also a problem that the education policy does not spell out measures to deal with parents that 'sell off' their young daughters into marriage and those that do not provide lunch to their children."

Nakawesi also points out that many education policies lack strategies that bring boys on board on matters of equality.

"For many boys that do not regard girls as equal partners, this creates a backlash once the girls in their environment thrive," she adds. The policy, she argues, needs to enable boys understand the importance of equality.

Margaret Watuwa, a head teacher at Kololo Secondary School says that gender parity policies have gone a long way in increasing enrollment; but more needs to be done to sustain girls in school.

A lot remains to be done, particularly in equipping schools with critical facilities to support the stay of girls in schools.

Lusambu says that the Government continues to devise means of supporting the girl children in school.

"We have strengthened the roles of Senior Women in schools and we hope that they will be able to support the girls in their needs. We have also provided sh4.5m to each District Education Officers to support monitoring activities and sh2.5bn, will be shared amongst all districts; for schools' inspections.

Perhaps more importantly, attitudes also need to be changed, towards more gender responsive actions.

Fact Box

According to the World Bank Gender Gap report 2012, the female-male divide in school enrolment has narrowed significantly and in some cases exceeded expectation.

At primary level for instance the gap is 92:90, indicating that there are more girls attending primary school, while in secondary schools it is 15:17 and 4:5 at tertiary level.

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